Note to my white self…
You did it again.
You gave the benefit of the doubt to the white person.
This is what happened. A black woman described a situation where she felt racially profiled and mistreated and, instead of acknowledging her pain and the injustice of the situation, you thought to yourself, “I wonder if the words and actions of that white person were really racist. Maybe this person of color misunderstood the situation and the intent of that white person.”
At least you didn’t openly question the veracity of her description. I suppose that’s progress. There was a time when you would have argued with a person of color about whether a situation which they experienced was really racist. You would have acted like you, a person who has never been the victim of racism, were the expert and they, someone who had been the target of racism often, were the novice. Ironically, you would have been oblivious to how your willingness to give the white person the benefit of the doubt is a clear manifestation of our prejudice and privilege.
I am glad you want to see racism ended. I appreciate your desire to work for that outcome. But that day is not today. And pretending that the behavior of yourself and other white people doesn’t have a racial dimension doesn’t make that day come any quicker. Indeed, that kind of thinking postpones that day.
Today, this is the reality. Based on our track record as a white dominated nation, there are probably a 100 interactions with some racial bias or prejudice in our society for every incident where a person of color misconstrues the situation. Are there situations where they get it wrong? Probably, but that isn’t the behavior that deserves your scrutiny. The more troubling question is why anyone – based on those odds – would give the white person the benefit of the doubt.
I think you know the answer to that question. You give the white person the benefit of the doubt because in exonerating them, you also free yourself of responsibility. Though you might defend your unwillingness to condemn the behavior of another white person as withholding judgment, in actuality you have already judged the person of color. They are deluded at best and a liar at worst. What they claim to have experienced isn’t real.
The black comedian W. Kamau Bell points out the absurdity of this common white behavior in his comedy show. He suggests questioning the racist experiences of people of color is as crazy as a black person challenging a white person’s claim they had pizza for lunch.
“How do you know it was pizza?”
“What are you talking about? Of course, it was pizza. I have pizza almost every day.”
“That’s what I think is suspicious. Why are you having pizza every day?”
“Because there is pizza everywhere in the world.”
“No, I don’t see all this pizza you’re seeing. I don’t think you had pizza. Are you sure it wasn’t pita bread with cheese on it?”
“No, it was pizza! I’ve eaten a lot of pizza in my life. My parents ate pizza. My grandparents ate pizza. My great grandparents were brought to this country to make pizza.”
I think you get his point.
However, as disturbing as this behavior can be, it is your willingness to give the white people the benefit of the doubt that is most concerning. When a person of color acts violently, they are a thug. When a white person is violent, they are mentally and emotionally disturbed. When a person of color possesses drugs, they are a drug dealer. When a white person has drugs, they are in need of treatment. When a person of color is arrested, they probably did something criminal. When a white person is charged, they are innocent until proven guilty.
Our society seldom gives the person of color the benefit of the doubt. Our police officers don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they drive on our streets. Our judges don’t give them the benefit of the doubt if they end up in our courts. Our employers don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they apply for a job. Our store guards don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they shop. I could go on and on. When you don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they report acts of racism, you are just as racist as the police officers, judges, employers and guards you find objectionable.
So start giving people of color the benefit of the doubt.
When your knee jerk response is to doubt their experience and defend the behavior of the white person, recognize that for what it is – evidence of your deeply embedded racism. Admit it. You cannot control it. You can only acknowledge and apologize for it.
Only then, can you hope to listen and learn from the experiences of people of color.